British Columbia

Fraud, breach of trust case against former B.C. legislature clerk rests with judge

A lawyer for British Columbia's former clerk of the legislative assembly says the Crown has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his client is guilty of any crimes.

Craig James has pleaded not guilty to fraud, breach of trust

Former B.C. legislative assembly clerk Craig James pictured in January leaving B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, where he is on trial for breach of trust. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Defence lawyers for British Columbia's former clerk of the legislature say the Crown has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their client committed any crimes related to fraud or breach of trust.

In closing arguments Thursday in B.C. Supreme Court, Kevin Westell and Gavin Cameron said Craig James did not stand to personally gain from any of the allegations made against him, including the purchase of a wood splitter and trailer with public funds when those items were intended for emergency preparedness reasons.

Westell said the fact that James had to take the equipment home because there wasn't a parking spot at the legislature is an illustration of "bureaucracy in action, and in inaction, more accurately.''

"There's no dispute there was always sufficient physical open space [at the legislature area] to fit the items. But they would be an eyesore, turning the front lawn of a tourist attraction into a literal trailer park, we say."

Cameron said the Crown has no evidence that James intended to permanently keep the wood splitter and trailer, and that he paid to have them stored after his wife wanted the equipment put elsewhere.

Craig James, pictured leaving B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Jan. 26, pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud over $5,000 and three counts of breach of trust by a public officer during his time serving as clerk between 2011 and 2018. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Former manager Randy Spraggett had the idea to buy the wood splitter and trailer despite the availability of a parking spot but James had ongoing conversations with others exploring various potential spaces at the legislature, Westell told Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes, who reserved her decision in the case.

Locations they considered included a lawn that would be too soggy during rainy weather and a space that could be created using crushed rock, though that was ruled out as being too close to the street and susceptible for use as a garbage receptacle by the public, Westell said.

The wood splitter and trailer were bought after discussions about the lack of power for several weeks in a large area of Puerto Rico, and the belief that some equipment would be needed at the legislature to cut wood, rebar and concrete as well as to rescue trapped people, he said.

Westell also said a form approving the purchase of the wood splitter and trailer was signed by then-Speaker Darryl Plecas, who published a report in 2019 detailing allegations of misspending involving other items as well after James was escorted from the legislature by the RCMP.

He called Plecas "the head of the pyramid'' among at least three others, including the executive financial officer, who gave approval for the equipment.

"Certainly, Mr. James was part of the group of senior managers that approved the purchase but he wasn't the only one,'' Westell said.

A wood splitter, retrieved from Craig James's home by RCMP, is shown at the legislature in Victoria on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Dirk Meissner/Canadian Press)

James has pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud over $5,000 and three counts of breach of trust by a public officer during his time serving as clerk between 2011 and 2018.

The Crown alleges James received a $258,000 pension benefit that he wasn't entitled to, but defence lawyers have said he rightfully had access to it based on policy at the time.

During his response Thursday, Crown counsel Brock Martland said the defence's arguments about collective bureaucratic ineptitude, which cast the blame on others, do not take James's position at the legislature into account.

"While it's true that the Speaker is also well up in structure, the functional reality is that the Speaker has very many duties and is an elected [member of the legislature] with constituency duties, whereas the clerk is the CEO responsible for the day-to-day management,'' he said.

"Even if others did fall short, in my respectful submission, even if that's found to be the case by the court, it's not without a basis. But that does not excuse the clerk's conduct.''

Martland said even though the executive financial officer signed off on some claims, that should not absolve James from having put forward some improper claims that shouldn't have been advanced.

"It's a little like a speeding car driver saying that police car didn't pull me over so I'm not speeding,'' he said, adding James had the ability to be aware of the process, to control it and to take advantage of it.

Cameron told the court that James bought various items like luggage while he was abroad if he needed it for material from conferences and that some pieces went into a "luggage pool'' at the legislature while others were found at his home because he'd merely kept them there after returning from trips.

Overall, the expenses in question amount to $11,000 over five years, and James has returned some items in question, he added.

However, Martland alleged that James had a "consistent theme of misrepresentation'' on invoices for some items like dress shirts.

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